Thursday, October 29, 2009

Of germ plasm and royal families

"The fact is that we are running out of a resource as vital as petroleum. The technical name for it is germ plasm and it means the genetic plant material whose biological diversity the hybridist could, until recently, draw on to a practically limitless extent. But the genetic base of our major food crops is narrowing steadily. An analogy might be the royal family that, having pursued a policy of perpetual intermarriage, winds up with many of its members afflicted with hereditary blindness, hemophilia or congenital idiocy. According to a recent study, most modern agriculture has come to be based on fewer than thirty plant species, and some of the consequences are already visible. Genetic diversity is agriculture's first line of defense against pest, diseases and adverse climatic conditions. Endless fields of genetically identical hybrid crops are, on the contrary, an invitation to disaster - disasters such as the wheat stem rust of 1954 and the southern corn blight of 1970, in which thousands of acres were destroyed."

-Eleanor Perenyi Green Thoughts - A Writer in the Garden (1981) p. 102

Sounds like something you might read today. Maybe in Organic Gardening magazine or the New York Times. Eleanor, born in 1918, was far ahead of her time.

She is completely right in defending genetic diversity, but I think we need to take it one step further. It's not enough to just grow the rare varieties, like watermelon radishes and Cherokee Trail of Tears beans. We need to continue to seek out well adapted individuals and save their seed. Plagues rise and fall and we, as gardeners and farmers, the caretakers of the earth, must be on the lookout for those plants that have the ability to sustain us through whatever may come. I'm not proclaiming an imminent doomsday here, but I do think this is an important issue. Maybe someone had a tomato plant in their garden on the east coast that was not affected by late blight, when all the others were. Wouldn't that be incredible?!

I personally haven't been successful at hybridizing vegetables. I tried it with my tomatoes this year, but to no avail. (Though I've been successful with fuchsias.) Others say it's easy to do with peas and squash, though.

We really shouldn't depend on seed companies to do all of the seed saving for us...most of those companies are owned by Monsanto, anyway. If you don't want to hybridize, try simply saving your own seeds, it's fun. As an added bonus, it creates a bit of that "stick it to the man" kind of feeling.

Oh yeah, Monsanto? You think you can make me pay you for your stupid, tasteless, F1 seeds?

HaHaHa, I've outsmarted you! So, take this!


keewee said...

Yes Jackie we do have to be aware and really start paying attention. Saving seed is a start, and this year I have saved bean seed.

Stefaneener said...

Kale seed this year, more next! Thoughtful post, Jackie.

Jackie said...

Hope ya'll don't think I was preachin'! I just realized it might have seemed that way, but that was not my intention.

James Missier said...

Thanks for the idea. Never thought about it that way.

betsy said...

Have you seen Food Inc? The part that struck me the most was when Monsanto put one of the last seed cleaners in Kansas out of business. A common farmer's associate until the 1980's, a seed cleaner was a person who's entire business was based on cleaning seads so farmers could save them. They used an old machine that shook the husks off of beans. Not only did Monsanto pursue the people who were having seeds cleaned, but they shut down the cleaner itself. Makes me want a bumber sticker that says "I SAVE SEEDS," how Berkely of me!

Jackie said...

Hey Betsy, I haven't seen Food Inc., yet, but it's in my Netflix queue. I'd buy that bumper sticker, too!